Continuing Moses’s farewell address to the Children of Israel, this week’s portion deals extensively with the legal system the people must establish when they enter the land. From courts to kings and priests to false witnesses and murderers, the portion details what God expects the people to do in each case.
The portion then continues by instructing the people in proper procedures for war. It also details what should be done in the event of an unsolved murder.
A System of Justice
Moses instructs the people to set up a court system with judges and officers. He exhorts the judges and officers to serve the people honestly and not let their judgment be clouded by bribery or the power of the people involved.
Moses reiterates the injunction against idolatry, this time singling out Ashera trees and pillars as forbidden forms of worship, and tells the people not to sacrifice any blemished animal to God.
Returning to the topic of the justice system, Moses tells the people if any of their number transgresses God’s laws against foreign worship, they should be brought before the court, tried and killed. Two witnesses are required for capital cases.
Any case too complex should be brought before a higher court, all the way up to the Levites who will clarify God’s will. Moses tells the people they should listen to the teachings of the Levites, and any who disregard them, or the judgment of the judges, shall be put to death.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think reminders not to commit idolatry are intermingled with instructions regarding the establishment of a legal system?
Laws of Kings and Priests
Moses now sets out the laws that distinguish kings, priests and Levites from the rest of the nation. He tells the people there will come a time when they establish themselves in the land and wish to set a king for themselves like the nations around them. Moses instructs the people to choose only a king from among their brethren, rather than a foreigner.
A king of Israel may not have too many horses, too many wives or too much money, lest those things lead him astray. He must write for himself a Torah scroll, which he is to read from every day. Following these laws will keep the king on the path which God wishes him to tread and prevent him from becoming haughty.
Like the king, priests and Levites have unique laws, as well. They do not receive a portion in the Land of Israel as the other tribes do. Instead, they partake in the offerings brought to God at the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. Moses lists a specific portion of the offerings which are to belong to the priests.
The Israel Bible notes the danger inherent in being king which the Torah recognizes. Although a king is a necessity to prevent chaos (see Judges 17-21), he runs the risk of forgetting the source of his power: God. The laws of the king set out in this passage are meant to prevent this. Likewise, there is a similar risk to those who conquer and work the land. The laws of the king remind us all to recognize God as the source of all our blessings and successes.
Points to Ponder
The Torah specifies many horses are forbidden because they may lead the nation to return to Egypt to acquire them. Why do you think many wives and much silver and gold would be specifically forbidden to an Israelite king?
Prophets Instead of Witchcraft
Moses tells the people not to copy the practices of the nations which they will dispossess; namely, witchcraft and divination. Instead, God will raise for them prophets from among the people, as they told Moses at Sinai hearing God’s word directly was too overwhelming. Moses tells the people to adhere to the words of the faithful prophet, but be wary of the false prophet, which he defines as anyone who would claim to speak for God but steer the people away from His commandments.
The Israel Bible brings down an observation on the passage made by the Sages. The passage begins by saying, “When thou art come into the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee…” This demonstrates that the land was promised to each and every person personally, and that it is up to each individual, then, to behave in a manner which earns them the right to remain in the land. For that reason Moses warns the people not to learn from the abominations of the nations which are being conquered.
Points to Ponder
There is a debate among classical Rabbinic authorities whether witchcraft is forbidden because it is false or whether it has real power. What do you think and, based on the sources here, why?
Manslaughter vs. Murder and False Witnesses
This brief passage deals with the establishment of the cities of refuge first mentioned in Numbers 35 and the laws of those who may or may not seek sanctuary there. Three cities must be established first, then as Israel’s borders expand, three more.
Moses identifies who may flee there: only one who has killed by accident in a case where there was no previous animosity between the victim and the manslayer. Within the city limits, the manslayer is safe from the avenger, who might otherwise seek revenge in the heat of the moment.
On the other hand, if the killer had a long-standing feud with the victim, and murders him, the murderer will not be kept safe within the city of refuge. The elders of the city are to put him out of city limits, turning him over to the avenger.
The passage continues with a brief law forbidding one from infringing upon the property of a neighbor. As the Israel Bible points out, God gave the Children of Israel the land, but he expects them to live fairly and justly within it. God forbids the people from taking advantage of one another. This behavior would be unacceptable anywhere, but is especially so in the Holy Land.
The final topic in the portion of the week is court witnesses. Mentioned earlier, two witnesses are required at minimum for capital cases. In case witnesses conspire against a defendant, however, the Torah requires the judges to question them thoroughly and determine the reliability of their testimony. If they are found to be conspirators, they receive the punishment they sought for their intended victim.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think God allows those who kill out of negligence to flee to safety and avoid prosecution?
Preparations for War and Unsolved Murders
Moses tells the people what to do in preparation for future wars. He notes that the people should not be afraid if they encounter an enemy that seems more numerous or more powerful than they, as God will be by their side. The priest will announce to the people that God is with them and they should not be afraid. He will tell anyone who has recently built a new home, planted a new vineyard, taken a new bride or is deathly afraid that they may be excused from battle.
Before attacking a city, the priest will offer peace to the inhabitants, on condition that the residents pay tribute and serve the Children of Israel. However, if they refuse, the people are to lay siege to the city, killing the men and taking the women, children and booty for themselves. This applies only to a distant city, however; cities within the borders which God has promised to the Children of Israel are to be wiped out entirely. The members of the seven nations may not be allowed to remain within the boundaries of Israel lest they lead the Israelites astray towards idolatry.
The Israel Bible points out that according to some authorities, even the seven original Canaanite nations must be offered peace initially, provided they reject idolatry. The Land was given to the People of Israel as an inheritance, but they desire to live in it in peace with their neighbors.
During the course of such a war, trees may be cut down for siege purposes. Fruit trees, however, must be left alone, as they have done no harm.
Finally, if an unidentified body is found on the road between cities, the distance between the body and the cities should be measured and the elders of the closer city called upon to take responsibility for the body. They will take an unworked heifer to a valley which cannot be farmed and ax its neck there, in the presence of the priests. The elders shall wash their hands over the body of the heifer and declare that they were not responsible for the man’s death.
The Israel Bible points out that the axed heifer is one of the few non-agricultural commandments which may only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel. According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the commandment is incumbent on the congregation as a whole, and the congregation of Israel is only considered complete when it resides in the land of Israel. This reminds us of the centrality of the Land in the lives of the People of Israel.
Points to Ponder
What do you think is the significance of the axed heifer ritual? Why do you think it must be performed?